No easy wins and life lessons growing up in the Crutchfield household

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Even at 44 years-old, Buddy Crutchfield still tries to remind his kids who the best athlete is in the house.

Crutchfield was a three-sport (football, basketball, track) star at Athens Drive High School. That led to a football career at North Carolina Central where he left Durham as one of the Eagles’ best defensive backs. A two-year NFL career followed, with stops in Washington with the Redskins and in New York with the Jets.

His playing days are long over and now he spends a lot of his time watching his two children thrive in their respective sports. His oldest child, Kai, is a rising senior point guard for the N.C. State Wolfpack. Buddy and Kai, along with Buddy’s wife, Joselyn, were in Georgia last week, where Brandon, 14, was playing in a baseball tournament.

Before Brandon and Kai’s games Buddy admits he still has some nerves. Before a tip off or first pitch, his palms might get sweaty or he might not be able to sit still, the competitive juices flowing through his veins as if he’s about to suit up.

But again, it’s been 21 years since he suited up. But that doesn’t stop him from trying to remind Kai where she got her athletic genes from.

“All the time,” Kai responded when asked if Buddy tries to show he’s still athletic. “With old age you can’t let your kids know that age might be sneaking up on you.”

Give him two weeks to train and Buddy swears he could beat Kai in a foot race.

Kai doesn’t even respond to that proclamation. Besides, even though she’s a starting point guard in the ACC, track and field was her first love. It was the first sport she can remember her parents signing her up for. And she was good at it. Her specialty was the high jump.

Sports have been a way of life for the Crutchfield family for a long time. Buddy comes from a long line of athletes and knew Kai would follow along as soon as she could start walking. Buddy and Joselyn signed Kai up for gymnastics at first. Joselyn herself was a gymnast so it seemed like a natural fit. But when Buddy was in the NFL he told one of the trainers he had a daughter who was signed up for gymnastics. The trainer told Buddy to do what he liked, but warned him that gymnastics might stunt her growth, with all the pounding on her growth plates.

“So I called my wife immediately and said it’s not going to work,” Buddy said. “We snatched her out of there when she was young.”

Kai, who is now 5-9, doesn’t remember much from her days on the mat, other than a few participation trophies in a case at home.

“I’m assuming I did OK,” she said.

She’s done better than OK since picking up a basketball. Kai was a star at Millbrook, hitting the game-winning shot in the state title game her senior season, Buddy’s favorite moment from her athletic career. She decided to stay close to home after high school, picking N.C. State to play basketball. In the last two seasons Kai has started 51 games for the Wolfpack, who won the ACC tournament title last year. Kai will be one of four returning starters next season, and expected to have much more responsibility as one of the three seniors.

But that’s fine, whatever lies ahead, Buddy has prepared her for, or is at least there to walk her through her athletic journey.

Being hands off might be a new approach for Buddy. As a defensive back at NCCU from 1994-1997, active hands are part of what made him a great player in the secondary. He’s tied for fourth in school history with 17 career interceptions and tied for fourth in passes defended (51).

He’s also 10th all-time in tackles. But if not for a little snooping, Kai would have never known her dad was so good in college.

“He’s super humble,” Kai said. “But I was going through the trophy case and I saw he had Defensive Player of the Year and everything and I was like ‘why didn’t you tell me about this stuff?’ But he’s humble about it and I feel like that’s passed onto me. He showed me how to be humble about everything and let my play speak for itself.”

Sitting shoulder to shoulder in a hotel lobby in Georgia, it’s easy to see even over a Zoom call how much Buddy and Kai resemble each other. Buddy prefers the bald look, while Kai sports long braids, but they are pretty much the same person. When asked who is the most competitive, Buddy says Kai is laid back, in which she responds almost instantly “you’re laid back too.”

Buddy actually said Joselyn has the “most tenacity” and that Kai is “softer on other people.”

“She would rather someone outside the house beat her than someone inside the house,” Buddy said.

But there is a competitive spirit between father and daughter. A couple of years ago they played four games of H-O-R-S-E with Kai winning 3-1.

“I was trying,” Buddy said. “If we do something I’m trying hard. I don’t give out (wins).”

You don’t have to twist either of the athletes arms to get them to talk about the importance of earning your win.

“Realistically, nobody is going to give you anything,” Buddy said. “She’s learned lessons about having to earn it and we’d rather earn it instead of it being given to us. The good thing is she’s able to coach Brandon through the process of dealing with things like that.”

Buddy referenced Kai playing on a travel basketball team when she was younger, starting out as the last player on the bench, before working her way up to team captain. Buddy said Brandon isn’t getting as much playing time as he would like on the travel baseball team, but Kai can lean on her experiences and share those with her younger brother. She can still depend on those experiences to get her through life when her playing days are over.

“He said that going through the process, it builds character, not just as an athlete,” Kai said. “You can’t bounce a ball forever. Me going into the business world or whatever, I’m still able to bring something to the team, I’m considered as an option and they don’t have a reason not to consider me as an option.”

Buddy said he coached his kids up until they were preteens, then he passes them off to whoever leads what team they are on.

He stressed that being a parent hasn’t changed; that no matter how many times he tells them something, they don’t seem to believe it until they hear it from a coach, then it suddenly makes sense. The hard part was taking off the coach hat and just being a dad, realizing that Kai had her own career. Once he was able to make that adjustment it was easy converting to be just a fan.

Buddy jokes that any comments he makes now are just suggestions, even now with Kai playing at N.C. State.

“You take and do what you want to with it,” Buddy said. “‘I think you should drive to the basket more and not rely on the three as much, but hey, that’s just a suggestion.’”

Kai laughs at the “suggestions” acknowledging that Buddy and Joselyn know better than anyone what she’s capable of and when she hasn’t played up to her full potential. It only takes a glance from them and Kai knows what’s coming, so much so that at times she tries to avoid eye contact sometimes.

She knows it comes from a good place. Buddy played at the highest level, so whatever advice he can offer, she is willing to listen.

“It’s a blessing because he is able to know what it’s like from a players perspective,” Kai said. “With him knowing that he’s able to say what not to do and give me knowledge prior to walking into a situation instead of me learning the hard way.”


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